April 17, 2010; Associated Press | Here’s a story that intersects several themes we have covered over the years at Nonprofit Quarterly. California Aware, an agency that advocates for open government, has sued California State University to get information concerning Cal State’s contract with former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for a speech this coming June. As a state government agency, it should release contract information as part of the public’s “right to know,” right? Not in this case, because the contract concerning the cost of Palin’s fees and accommodations (and presumably entourage) is being handled by the CSU Stanislaus Foundation, Cal State’s 501(c)(3) university foundation, which says that its activities are “legally exempt from the California Public Records Act.” Many public universities have created private foundations for fundraising purposes—Palin’s speaking costs are covered by private donations—and have contended that those foundations have the same rights to confidentiality as other public charities, even though they are appendages created by and serving public universities. In 2001, the state courts ruled that these university foundations were entitled to keep documents confidential—except if the documents were also in the possession of the state universities themselves. What will Aware find? Some enterprising students say they discovered a portion of the contract in the trash, referencing first-class airfare and bottled water with bendable straws—and a requirement that all questions be prescreened. We don’t care about bendable straws here at NPQ, we care about disclosure of what the public really ought to know about what public institutions are doing.—Rick Cohen
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